Tag: farming

Economic freedom for refugees: The Ugandan model

Refugees from South Sudan wait to board trucks to the Nyumanzi Resettlement Camp in Uganda on January 26 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Refugees from South Sudan wait to board trucks to the Nyumanzi Resettlement Camp in Uganda on January 26 2014. (Pic: AFP)

When a team from Oxford University’s Humanitarian Innovation Project set out to explore what work refugees and asylum seekers in Uganda had managed to find, they were struck by the breadth and scale of businesses they were engaged in – from being café owners to vegetable sellers, to farmers growing maize on a commercial scale, millers, restaurateurs, transporters and traders in fabrics and jewellery.

With the number of the world’s displaced having now passed the 50-million mark and rising, debates are intensifying over how this many people can be supported. Alexander Betts and his team wanted to see whether it was realistic, and politically acceptable, to encourage refugees to be more self-sufficient.

Uganda has a relatively liberal policy towards its 387 000 refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom have fled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. Uganda does not have refugee camps as such, but most live in designated refugee settlements where there are allocated plots of land to farm. They can, however, get permission to live outside these settlements if they think they can support themselves, and Kampala in particular has a sizeable refugee population.

Betts told Irin: “Uganda is a relatively positive case in that it allows the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. That isn’t to say that it’s perfect, but it’s definitely towards the positive end of the spectrum. The reason we chose it is that it shows what’s possible when refugees are given basic economic freedoms.”

His team spoke to more than 1 500 households in Kampala and in two rural settlements – Nakivale in the south, and Kyangwali on the DRC border. The families were registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as refugees, but that did not mean that they all received humanitarian assistance. In Kampala 78% of refugee households receive no assistance at all from UNHCR or any other agency. Even in the refugee settlements, 17% of households receive no assistance, and even where families do get help they are unlikely to be fully dependent on aid, since UNHCR gives food rations for a maximum of five years, unless the refugees are designated as vulnerable.

So what do they do instead? They farm, certainly, in and around the rural settlements. Around half the Congolese, Rwandan and South Sudanese refugees the researchers talked to there had plots of their own, and others worked as farm labourers. Only the Somalis showed little or no interest in farming.

Not just subsistence farming
Ugandan crop buyers come regularly to the settlements, and take truckloads of produce from Kyangwali to the market town of Hoima. The researchers spoke to a trader in Hoima who said he bought around 500 tonnes of maize and beans from the refugee farmers last year, some 60% of his stock. He sold the maize on to other parts of Uganda, but also further afield, to Tanzania and South Sudan.

Now the farmers in Kyangwali are trying to cut out the middlemen and take their crops directly to market, through a co-operative with more than 500 members, including some Ugandan farmers from local villages. Kyangwali Progressive Farmers is registered as a limited company, and has started getting contracts to supply produce directly to manufacturers.

Kagoma weekly market in the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda. (Pic: IRIN/RSC)
Kagoma weekly market in the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda. (Pic: IRIN/RSC)
The research uncovered another substantial trading network with refugees at its centre – in this case Congolese refugees who were doing business in jewellery and printed cloth, known as bitenge. They buy from Ugandan wholesalers in Kampala, and sell, not just in the refugee settlements but also to Ugandan customers in nearby towns. Some also engage in cross-border trade, taking their wares into Kenya and South Sudan.

The picture which emerges is of a very “connected” economy, with refugees using their networks of contacts among fellow refugees and in their countries of origin to do business. But they also trade with their Ugandan neighbours, work in Ugandan enterprises and – when they prosper – create employment both for their countrymen and members of the host community.

A lesson for other countries?
The picture is a generally positive one, but not every country chooses to allow its refugees such economic freedom. Governments worry that if they are making a good living where they are, they will never go home, although Betts points out that when the time does come to leave, it is a lot easier to repatriate someone who has been busy and active and developed their skills, than someone who has spent years surviving on food rations in a refugee camp.

Successful refugees can also generate resentment in local populations. Uganda has remained generally tolerant, unlike neighbouring Kenya, where there has been a backlash against Somali refugees following a series of al-Shabab attacks. Uganda has also suffered terrorist attacks, but says Betts, “for some reason, unlike Kenya, they haven’t been connected to refugees in the same way, perhaps because in Kenya politicians have started to use the refugee issue for political gain”.

So the situation in Uganda does very much depend on its local context. Even so, Betts and his team are convinced that their study has implications for refugee policy elsewhere, particularly for the new crisis in the Middle East. “The traditional response is to create camps,” he told Irin, “but we can’t afford to do this in places like Lebanon. The cost – the human cost in terms of the waste of potential, and the possibility of developing resentment and frustration – is just too high.

“We have to realise what refugees can contribute, and not just warehouse them in camps. We should start by recognising that long-term encampment is not an option, and that when they are allowed, human beings can do a lot for themselves.”

Organic farm in Benin looks to set example for Africa

With his pilgrim’s staff and panama hat, Father Godfrey Nzamujo nips up and down the paths of Songhai, the organic farm he created nearly 30 years ago to fight poverty and rural migration in Africa.

The small farm covered barely a hectare when it was set up in Porto Novo in 1985 but has since become a pilot project for the rest of the continent badly in need of new ideas to maximise yields.

The centre in Benin’s capital now stretches over 24 hectares and employs an army of workers and apprentices, who toil from sunrise to sunset growing fruit, vegetables and rice, as well as rearing fish, pigs, poultry.

“Nothing is wasted, everything is transformed” according to Nzamujo’s principle, with even chicken droppings turned into the bio-gas that powers the centre’s kitchens.

Father Godfrey Nzamujo, director of the organic farm  Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)
Father Godfrey Nzamujo, director of Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)

Songhai in tiny Benin has big plans for Africa. It already has similar operations in Nigeria, Liberia and Sierra Leone and wants to set up shop in 13 more west and central African countries.

Nzamujo’s raison d’etre is how to help Africans increase yields through simple techniques, without using pesticides or fertilizers, and while cutting production costs and protecting the environment.

The Nigeria-born priest, who was raised in California on the US west coast, said he was shocked by the appalling images of famine in Africa on television at the start of the 1980s.

He then left to discover the continent to see how he could put to good use his university training in agronomics, economics and information technology and fight against poverty on his own terms.

How it began
After visiting a number of countries, he ended up in Benin where the country’s then-Marxist government gave him a small plot.

“It was abandoned land, killed by chemical fertiliser and conventional agricultural practices. It didn’t work,” he told AFP.

“There were seven of us. We dug wells and watered with our own hands. And during the main dry season, this grey surface became green,” he recalled with a smile.

Nzamujo’s secret is in imitating nature, encouraging “good bacteria” present in the soil to maximise production without having to rely on chemicals.

Yields at Songhai speak for themselves: the farm produces seven tonnes of rice per hectare three times a year, up from one tonne per hectare once a year at the beginning of the project.

“Songhai is facing up to the triple challenge of Africa today: poverty, environment and youth employment,” said Nzamujo proudly.

The cleric’s system centres on local production and distribution, creating economic activity to tackle poverty head on.

At Songhai, jam simmers in large pots while chickens are roasted and soya oil, rice and fruit juice are packaged for sale in the centre’s shop or served at its restaurant.

Discarded parts of agricultural machinery are reused to create ingenious contraptions and used water is filtered using water hyacinths.

A man wheels coconuts in a wheelbarrow at the Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)
A man wheels coconuts in a wheelbarrow at the Centre Songhai. (Pic: AFP)

The centre also has an internet point and even a bank so that local people can avoid going into the city centre.

Youth employment is encouraged and some 400 farm apprentices – selected by competition – are trained every year. The 18-month course is entirely free.

Apprentices, interns
Paul Okou is one of them. The 25-year-old from Parakou, northern Benin, would like to follow his parents into farming but is hoping to work in a more profitable way.

“My parents use traditional, archaic methods while at Songhai we learn the modern way, albeit makeshift,” he said.

“What we used to do in two days now we do in two hours.”

The apprentices are sent into villages where they apply what they have learned. Once in charge of a farm, they join the Songhai network and are checked regularly.

Songhai also welcomes interns who are paying for their own training.

They include Abua Eucharia Nchinor, a Nigerian in his 30s, and Kemajou Nathanael, a 39-year-old former salesman from Cameroon, who both want to open an organic farm in their respective countries.

According to Nzamujo, Songhai is not a cure-all for Africa’s problems but tackles their root causes.

“Imagine if all the young people who hang around big cities did their training here and we equip them. … Imagine the productivity of Africa today.” he said.

Cecile de Comarmond for AFP

Zimbabwe’s coffee farmers struggle amid global boom and political gloom

A misty dawn has not yet given way to daylight in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands. Lenard Moyo, a coffee farmer near Chipinge town, is prising red arabica beans out of their trees and putting them in his bag – as he does every morning during harvest season. “It’s hard when it’s so cold outside, but we have to pick them early,” he said.

A woman harvests ripe coffee berries. [Pic: Reuters]
A woman harvests ripe coffee berries. [Pic: Reuters]
Zimbabwe’s coffee belt has the perfect growing conditions for the beans: high mountain peaks and cool climates, and the country used to be famous for its “super-high-quality” product, slowly sun-dried, and tasting smooth and fruity. In the 1990s it produced some of the best coffee in the world, alongside South America and Kenya, generating crucial foreign currency and a livelihood for many labourers and small-scale farmers, as well as the big commercial farms.

But today the industry is in decline: many of the mills have been abandoned, farmers are in debt, and Zimbabwe produces just 60 “bags” of coffee beans a year compared with 250 bags in 1988 – with one bag amounting to 60 tonnes of coffee.

Earlier this year the European Union announced €10m (R132-million) in aid to Zimbabwe’s medium and small-scale farmers, in an attempt to revive the industry. But there’s a catch. “Coffee is an important crop and we’ll consider funding requests from small farmers provided the land involved is not in dispute,” Aldo Dell’Ariccia, head of the EU delegation to Zimbabwe, told the CAJ news agency.

Moyo said this caveat disqualified the majority of farmers. “Most of our small coffee plots are on land being contested in court by former white farmers. We’ll simply not qualify,” he said.

The disputes began in 2000, when young militants loyal to the president, Robert Mugabe, stormed white-owned farms to reclaim the land. At the time, Moyo was what was known as an “out-grower” – a black farmer owning a small plot of land next to a large commercial farm, relying on his neighbours for finance, expertise and machinery.

Production plummets
“First, [the militants] pruned down our coffee beans and burned hectares of trees in a week of rage. Coffee drying pens were turned into nurseries for marijuana and wild vegetables,” he said. “The new farm owners wanted instant profit but a coffee tree once planted takes three to five years to mature.”

Production plummeted as the new landowners could not secure bank loans to buy fertilisers or repair ageing infrastructure. Many were new to the business, and lacked the expertise to keep quality high.

In turn, international buyers began to shun Zimbabwean coffee, and in 2010 the Mutare Coffee Mill, considered one of the best in Africa, was forced to shut down. It required at least 4 000 tonnes of coffee to operate profitably but was receiving just 300.

And while Zimbabwean coffee growers struggle, elsewhere the industry is booming. Ten years ago the average cost of a tonne of coffee was $1 400, now it can fetch up to $4,000 (R39 400), according to the International Coffee Organisation.

“Zimbabwe is losing billions of dollars annually as the price of coffee has increased to about $3 per pound, up from $1 per pound in the 90s,” Gifford Trevor, president of Zimbabwe’s Coffee Growers Association, told News24.

Most of the country’s coffee farmers lack cash reserves to support themselves when the crop fails or yields are low, according to World Vision. The charity is training farmers and offering much-needed supplies such as fertilisers, irrigation systems and pesticides. But the farmers are still unable to compete with better organised growers in countries such as Rwanda, Kenya and Malawi.

Suppliers at a disadvantage
The global coffee industry is also stacked against suppliers, with the bulk of the profit going to those further up the chain.

In August, on a sponsored trip to Johannesburg, 39-year-old Moyo tasted his first cappuccino. “I thought it was bitter lemon,” he said. He was particularly horrified to pay $3 for one cup, compared with the $5.30 he receives for a bag of raw coffee beans.

Peter Multz, a former consultant for the Dutch charity SNV, which works with Zimbabwean farmers to improve their business skills, said most of the profit went to shippers, roasters and retailers. He said Zimbabwean farmers also faced particular problems.

“Sometimes the coffee is delayed at border crossings for up to a week, and without proper facilities the beans go bad. Sometimes buyers have to pay a bribe to let their coffee shipments go through,” he said.

With a more stable economy and western governments starting to release aid, Zimbabwean farmers hope that the country’s coffee industry will recover. But for Moyo times are still hard: “I can’t even pay my farm workers and coffee pickers properly,” he said. “Sometimes we reward them with milk, soya meals, and clothes after every harvest. As we say here, cash is a crunch.”

Ray Mhondera for the Guardian Africa Network. Mhondera is editor of The Africa Scientist Magazine.

Mangroves bring wildlife back to Senegal coast

Crabs scuttle among mangrove roots in a dense riverbank forest in southern Senegal, where a major reforestation project is reviving wildlife and boosting the west African country’s lukewarm economy.

“Everything you see here has been replanted. Before 2006, there wasn’t a single tree,” said Senegalese environmental activist and government minister Haidar El Ali in Tobor, a village near Ziguinchor, the main city of the Casamance region.

Senegalese ecologist and environment minister Haidar El Ali stands with militants asking for the reforestation of the mangrove in Tobor, Senegal. (Pic: AFP)

He gestured toward mangroves tied to stilts bordering the Casamance river, planted by his Oceanium environmental organisation to boost an area that experts said was severely depleted by deforestation, drought and increased salt levels in the water.

Alongside the road leading to the neighbouring Marsassoum valley, and around the paddy fields used in the centuries-old activity of rice cultivation, various mangrove species are abundant.

The habitat was destroyed through decades of illegal logging in mangrove forests for firewood and building.

“There has been nothing here since the 1960s and 70s. Replanting is bringing back the mangrove,” said Simeon Diatta, the chief of Diakene Diole village near the Guinea-Bissau border, pointing at riverside vegetation.

Reforestation revives mangroves
Since 2006, reforestation has revived 12 000 hectares (30 000 acres) of mangrove in Senegal – an area larger than the city of Paris – mainly in Casamance but also in the north and centre of the country, according to official figures.

“I am struck by the extraordinary success that this initiative represents,” French Development Minister Pascal Canfin said on a recent visit to Casamance, descriving the programme as “model for Senegal, Africa and the world”.

“With the return of the mangrove, people are catching a lot of fish and oysters. Women are selling them on and making a lot of money,” Diakene Diola resident Simeon Diatta told AFP.

The mangrove, which thrives in salt water, is important for trade in forestry and fishery products.

The swamps provide a nursery area for many marine species, most of which are important for food such as fish, crabs and shrimp.

In the nearby village of Diakene Ouolof, resident Mariama Tine said “everything was dead” before the replanting programme began.

“The mangroves stopped the advance of salt and we were able to recover rice fields. There were no fish here before but we are starting to get a lot of them, along with oysters and ark clams,” she said.

Mangroves vital to indigenous worship
Tobor mangrove farmer Mamadou Faye Badji says the ecosystem created by the tree is also vital in the worship rituals of the region’s indigenous people.

“The totems of the Diola are all in the forest. If forests are not dense enough, they will not stay here,” he told AFP, while Fisheries Minister Haidar El Ali said the mangrove had become part of the cultural heritage of the region’s villagers.

The damage done to mangrove swamps by deforestation remains “enormous”, however, and the battle is far from won, according to an environment ministry official.

Senegal’s economy is concentrated on fishing, tourism and groundnut production, with limited mineral resources and a narrow export base.

While the country has a long history of stability, its growth is below average on the continent and the reforestation is expected to contribute to an improvement.

Yet the project is not without controversy, with some believing the mangrove tree’s abundance is detrimental to the production of rice, since paddy areas are increasingly making way for mangrove swamps.

Lecturer Pape Cherif Bertrand Bassene mused in a recent column for the Quotidien daily newspaper that locals in Casamance, rather than welcoming the reforestation workers, should be decrying their “ignorance of tradition which results in a policy that does violence to this rice-growing culture”.

Bassene said reforestation had led to the “unavoidable consequence of divorcing the Casamance youth from their traditional rice-growing roots” and had reestablished mangrove swamps that local people “have always cut down to turn them into rice fields”.

Malick Rokhy Ba for AFP

Ghana’s first farmers’ market: ‘We need more like this’

There are some things about public gatherings in Ghana’s capital Accra that are guaranteed. A certain amount of dust and Atlantic spray on the breeze, a sound system blaring Azonto – a local music sensation – just a bit too loud, fearless children lining up to show off their moves, and an orderly row of canopies where the hot and the tired sit down on plastic chairs and take stock.

But if you looked a little closer at the fair in Ako Adjei park on Saturday, you would have found that what appeared a typical Accra event was quietly masking something quite unusual: a farmers’ market. The dozen or so small-scale producers selling their wares at The Accra Green Market were busily making history as participants in Ghana’s first ever fair for locally grown, sustainable, organic produce.

A fruit seller holds six-day old egg plants from Ghana.
A fruit seller holds six-day old eggplants from Ghana. (Pic: AFP)

“This is a great way to give exposure to organic, local products,” says Jeffrey Mouganie, 22, founder of Moco Foods, an organic company that produces local forest honey and fiery chilli sauce, guaranteeing a traceable supply chain and hiring workers with disabilities. “The only space we usually get to market our products are at the bazaars of international schools, where we sell to a lot of expats,” he says. “But we need more markets like this – the best feedback we have had for our products is from Ghanaians.”

Moco’s Savannah Honey, on sale here for 10 Ghana cedis – approximately £3 (R45) – is being exported to the UK where it will go on sale at Harrods and Selfridges for what the producers expect to be around five times that price. Also on sale, organic mushroom wine – said to be a treatment for practically every medical condition from sclerosis to high blood pressure, asthma and “sexual weakness” – pak choi, gloriously frothy-leaved heads of broccoli, watermelon, small, knobbly carrots, and tough-skinned, tangy nectarines full of seeds and sweet-sour juice.

The organisers of the market believe they are part of a new trend towards sustainable, organic and local food, which they say goes hand in hand with the growth of Ghana’s new middle class. “Things in Ghana are changing – it is no longer a poor country but a middle-income country. And because of that, people are more interested in what they eat,” says Edison Gwenda Abe, 29, founder of Agripro – a mobile application company that provides farmers with access to marketplaces and which organised the Accra Green Market. “In East Africa, farmers’ markets are already really popular, but in West Africa, there is nothing like this. We plan to take it to different locations in Ghana, and we have had interest from Nigeria too.”

New interest in organic food
Constance Korkoi Tengey, founder of Immaculate Gold Beads, Mushrooms and Snails, is typical of the kind of small-scale grower whose products the market is designed to showcase. An energetic 62-year-old who carefully dishes out mushroom sandwiches, mushroom salad and mushroom gari foto – a veggie version of a popular Ghanaian dish made from cassava tubers – Tengey began growing mushrooms in her back garden seven years ago and says sales are on the rise.

“I eat a lot of mushrooms as a substitute for meat, and I’ve noticed that I don’t gain as much weight, and it keeps me looking younger,” Tengey says. “People in Ghana are becoming more health-conscious these days, they are really showing an interest in my products. It’s a profitable business for me.”

But it’s not only shoppers who are fuelling Ghana’s new interest in organic food. The city’s ever expanding directory of hotels, restaurants and cafes has an insatiable appetite for local products and high quality produce. “There are a lot of new eateries bringing in foreign chefs, and as a result the quality is getting higher,” says Sadiq Banda, an organic grower in Accra who supplies some of the city’s five-star hotels.

“Chefs are always looking for the best produce, and there is a great need for more local food producers to supply them. The Ghanaian middle class is growing too, and becoming more interested in quality. But Ghanaians are still mainly interested in conspicuous consumption – they do not tend to spend money on high-quality things unless other people can see them doing it, and fresh produce is not yet a priority.”

Ghana may still have some way to go in grasping the concept of organic, whole foods. Alongside the organic avocados on one stall were tins of corned beef, canned sardines and mayonnaise, where young women were zealously composing “salad” – a concoction of oily, processed products with a dash of fresh vegetable to top it off. And Ghana being Ghana, there is a strong affection for the deep-fried. My taste award went to Tengey’s “Kentucky Fried Mushrooms” – not blessed with a name that conjures up all things fresh, small-scale and local, but they tasted quite simply amazing.

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network